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A Motley Crew On A Wild Pilgrimage In 'Sophia'

Oftentimes the most provocative stories are the ones that bridge the holy and the profane, that mesh the intellectual and the spiritual to arrive at a form of truth. And in fiction, as in life, truth can come in many forms.

In Sophia, the slim novel by Michael Bible, this juxtaposition is achieved to startling effect. It's the tale of Alvis T. Maloney, a "lazy priest of the town's worst church." He's a jaded, drunken reverend who snorts heroin, roams aimlessly, and has erotic dreams about the Holy Ghost, "a white-hot angel." Maloney and his sidekick Eli, a chess master of a kind, are on a cross country journey. They're collecting winnings from Eli's chess tournaments and being chased by someone named Jack Cataract, a blind bounty hunter who reads Penthouse in braille and writes songs about the rapture on a yellow guitar. If that sounds off, it's because it is — and wonderfully so.

At times poetic and with flashes of brilliance, Sophia is more concerned with capturing a feeling, an idea, than adhering to a strict plotline. And while a story does eventually unfold, the misfits and outliers who occupy the book are its most memorable feature, and ultimately save it from falling into self-indulgence. From Maloney's pregnant girlfriend Tuesday to the atheist Dick Dickerson and a waitress they call Darling who "steals philosophy from the bookstore and devours men," the strange is all here, right this way, please. All of the characters, so it seems, are on a personal search – a quest to find something worthy to which they can devote themselves entirely."There is bliss out there somewhere," Maloney muses, before lighting a spliff in his confessional.

More often than not their vices get the best of these characters, clouding their vision and leading them down dangerous and unpredictable paths. They fall in love, play strip chess, and guzzle a lot of gin. They are people of excess, which in ways makes them relatable; their utter lostness fuels the book's charm and offbeat wit. "Things are so bad," says Maloney, "and then I remember the secular saints: Beethoven, van Gogh, the drummer from Def Leppard."

Sophia benefits greatly from its minimalist structure. Bible calls his novel a "manic prayer to a sleepy god," and he's written it in short, punchy paragraphs, weaving in and out of scenes like a madman switching lanes in traffic: "The days are shorter and the Confederate daughters weep under men on stone horses. A hurricane named Honey is swirling off the gulf. While you were gone, Eli, I smashed all my ships in a bottle. Out there above the cotton are dead stars whose light we still see."

Disorienting and smartly conveyed, the snippets that make up the whole read like carefully controlled riffs, rich in pop culture references and biblical anecdotes. Yet, the flashes of brilliance come not when Maloney is rambling about Joan of Arc or the virgin birth but when he's confessing, getting at something he feels deeply. "I only love the ugly pretty girls," he says. "Too much beauty makes me sick. If a woman has no scars she doesn't interest me."

It's in these moments that the reader finds something to look forward to in Bible's work. If Sophia is any indication, we have a promising new writer here, who, like his main character, might be on a pilgrimage of his own.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juan Vidal